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Rabat, Morocco's capital, is a modern city with wide boulevards and well-maintained gardens, and is for the most part a far cry from the frantic alleys of Marrakech and Fez. It is, however, no less steeped in history, once serving as a haven for the ruthless Barbary pirates, while its neighbouring city, Salé, dates back to Phoenician times.
The King of Morocco now lives in Rabat, making it the administrative capital. As a result the city is somewhat conservative and serious, but there is still colour to be found in the old part of the city, the Medina, and the Kasbah, where there is a more relaxed atmosphere and many of the chief tourist attractions can be found.
Recreational opportunities abound, with a world-renowned golf course (Royal Golf Dar Es Salam), a few lovely beaches, and some ancient ruins nearby. Rabat sits on the Atlantic coastal plain at the mouth of the river Bou Regreg, opposite Salé.
As Rabat is the capital of Morocco it tends to be the centre of any public dissatisfaction and visitors are advised to avoid any political gatherings or street protests while in the city; however, in recent years anti-government rallies in Rabat have tended to be peaceful and the city is currently considered safe for tourists.
Rabat has a mild and temperate climate: warm in summer (June to August), and cool during the winter (December to February). The average high in summer is 82°F (28°C) and winter temperatures drop to an average low of 46°F (8°C). The highest rainfall generally falls in November and December, with July and August being the driest months. The best time to visit Rabat is between April and November.
The Kasbah des Oudaias was recently added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites and is a pleasant place to take a stroll and admire some interesting architecture.
The Kasbah was the Alhomad citadel of medieval Rabat, and is guarded by an impressive arched gate built around 1195. Inside the Kasbah is the palace and Andalucian gardens, as well as a broad terrace, which gives beautiful views of the river and sea close to the city's oldest mosque, the Kasbah Mosque, founded in 1050. Below the terrace are several fortifications with gun emplacements guarding the estuary, and even further below is a beach, usually crowded with locals.
The views from this ancient stronghold are marvellous, and a little café sits beside the palace, where visitors can have traditional mint tea and almond cookies while admiring the view. The winding alleys and characteristic blue and white buildings give the area a cool and peaceful allure.
Emerging from the boulevards of the Ville Nouvelle (New Town) of Rabat, one comes across the ruins of Chellah, once the thriving walled Roman port city of Sala Colonia, abandoned in 1154 in favour of Salé across the river mouth.
In the time of the Almohads the site was used as a royal burial ground, and following this, the Merenid sultan, Abou El Hassan, added some monuments and the striking main gate in the mid-14th century. Just inside the gate are Roman ruins dating from 200 BC, which include a forum, a temple and a craftsmen's quarter.
The citadel is now part of a garden and in spring the ruins are surrounded by a beautiful variety of flowers. The Chellah Gardens are entered through an ancient gateway created by the Almohads and notable ruins inside, apart from the Roman remains, include what is left of the small mosque dedicated to Abou Youssef, several elaborate tombs, and a stone minaret in the centre of the grounds. Visitors are welcome to wander freely and none of the ruins are off limits. The garden is a lovely place to spend some time and since 2005 has been the venue of an annual international jazz festival, Jazz au Chellah.
The massive Hassan Tower, which dates to 1195, is the minaret of a mosque and towers over the capital, Rabat. However, the huge Rabat Mosque itself was never completed and was largely destroyed in an earthquake in 1755.
The mosque and the minaret were intended by the builders to be the largest in the world but today all that is left of the mosque is several walls in various states of ruin and 200 columns. Also, the minaret, made from striking red sandstone, is unusually situated at the centre of the mosque building, and was intended to be 262ft (80m) high, though it stands at 164ft (50m) today. Each façade of the minaret is intricately patterned with different motifs on each face.
Opposite the mosque is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, one of the great monuments of modern Morocco, inaugurated in 1967. The deceased king, Mohammed, lies entombed in white onyx, surrounded by royal guards, and hundreds of Moroccans pay homage by filing through the mausoleum each day. The tower, what remains of the mosque, and the modern mausoleum form an important historical and cultural complex which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a popular tourist attraction.
Volubilis, near the Moroccan town of Meknes, situated between Rabat and Fez, was a central Roman administrative city in Africa from around the third century BC, built atop a previous Carthaginian city. Volubilis was unique in that it was not abandoned after the Romans lost North Africa to the Arabs, with even the Latin language living on in the area for several centuries.
Volubilis remained inhabited until the 18th century, when it was demolished to provide building materials for the palaces of Moulay Ismail in nearby Meknes, which meant that a great deal of the Roman architectural heritage was lost.
Today the ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and consist of some well-preserved columns, a basilica, a triumphal arch and about 30 magnificent mosaics. It is recommended that you have a knowledgeable guide for this site, as it is greatly enriched by knowing the background and context of what you are seeing. It takes a few hours to stroll around all the ruins and visitors should be sure to come prepared for the baking sun as there is little shade - drinking water, sunscreen and a hat will make all the difference, and comfortable walking shoes are also essential.
Rabat, located along the Atlantic coast of Morocco, has a temperate Mediterranean climate with mild winters and dry, hot summers. In winter, from late November to early March, average temperatures range from 48°F (9°C) to 66°F (19°C). Temperatures tend to drop quite drastically in the evenings and can be as low as 32°F (0°C) on winter nights, so it is always advisable to carry an extra layer of clothing. During the summer, from late June to September, temperatures average at about 77°F (25°C). The summer months are generally very dry, but during the winter Rabat does experience its fair share of sporadic thunderstorms. December is the wettest month, with an average rainfall of about three inches (76mm). As the city is located close to the sea, it experiences a light to moderate sea breeze throughout the year.
Rabat is a relatively small city so getting around is fairly straightforward and journeys are never long. The easiest way to get around is by using the blue petit taxis, which are clearly visible throughout Rabat. Tourists are advised to ensure that the meters are used properly to avoid being overcharged.
Travelling by bus is also a cheap and convenient way to get around Rabat, and provides a great opportunity to interact with local Moroccans. Buses in Rabat vary in quality and travellers should be aware of their belongings as pickpockets are known to operate on busy services. There is also a tram line which runs between Rabat and its twin city, Salé. Trams run between about 6am and 11pm daily and services operate roughly every 10 minutes during the week.
Those who prefer to explore Morocco's capital city at a more leisurely pace will find that most of Rabat's major attractions are accessible on foot. Car hire is available in the city, but foreigners are advised that driving can be stressful due to chaotic traffic, a general disregard for rules, and a high accident rate.
Rabat's Medina, or old city, was created by Andalucian Muslim refugees from Badajoz in Spain, and was essentially all there was to the city until the arrival of the French in 1912 and the subsequent building of the Ville Nouvelle or new quarter. The Medina is small and not as interesting or attractive as the old city sections of Fez or Marrakech, but the foundouks (traditional cafes) and shops make for a lively atmosphere.
Souika Street is the main artery through the Medina, where you will find the leather sellers at the Sebbat souk (footwear bazaar). In Consules Street, shops sell curiosities, souvenirs, and Moroccan craft items such as copper and embroidery as well as the famed Rabat carpets. Another wonderful area to explore in Rabat is the Kasbah des Oudaias, with its famous white and blue buildings and lovely views.
Rabat is blessed with some captivating ancient ruins which will delight history buffs: the Citadel of Chellah was once a Roman port city and the remains of this centre are interspersed with the tombs of an Almohad necropolis; another must-see is Volubilis, situated between Rabat and Fez, which was once a Roman city, and still holds some amazing ruins and mosaics.
There are also numerous popular excursions from the city, including the seaside town of Temara, a convenient eight miles (13km) from Rabat, which is a favourite weekend picnic spot and campsite for city dwellers. The town has several pleasant stretches of sand, and some good hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs. The ancient city of Meknes is also within reach.
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